The Arabian Peninsula — (IV) Foreseeable futures

Tarek Osman
Wednesday 21 Jun 2023

Three interdependent variables and scenarios can help us think about the future of the countries of the Arabian Peninsula.


The first variable that can help us think about the future of the countries of the Arabian Peninsula concerns leadership. Despite the wide scope of the power that the states of the Arabian Peninsula have achieved, and its large scale, their political economy remains largely controlled by very small circles, often revolving round a single man in each country, a vulnerability addressed in the third article in this series.

We have already seen succession procedures put in place in several peninsula countries over the past few years. In the case of Saudi Arabia, we already know a lot about the heir to the throne’s ambitions and direction of travel. In other countries, we know little about the future leaders.

Since the highly concentrated ruling mechanisms in the peninsula will likely remain as they are in the foreseeable future, how this new cadre of leaders will rule and whether they will initiate major changes domestically or in their countries’ international positioning will prove highly consequential for each of them and for the Arabian Peninsula as a whole.

Two scenarios stand out. In the first, we might see the leaders of the small states in the Gulf opting to focus on economics and living standards in their countries in the foreseeable future, at a time when Saudi Arabia, the behemoth of the peninsula, is cementing its place as the orchestrator of the peninsula’s and the Levant’s most important geo-political and political-economy dynamics. In this scenario, the Arabian Peninsula will return to a geopolitical situation similar to that of the period from the early 1940s to the late 1960s, when Saudi Arabia exercised a decisive sway over the entire region.

This scenario would augment Saudi Arabia’s influence in the Arab world and its position as a significant medium-sized power on the wider international scene. It could also lead to major changes in the peninsula’s political economy. We might see the emergence of a single Arabian Peninsula currency, central bank, and perhaps even finance and foreign ministries. In this scenario, the countries of the Arabian Peninsula, inspired by the European Union and shepherded by Saudi Arabia, might gradually move in the direction of some sort of federation.

But there is another scenario relating to leadership. In this second scenario, we might see ambitious and assertive leaders in some of the small but ultra-rich Gulf states deeming that the interests of their countries are different from those of the much bigger and more populous Saudi Arabia. Fuelled by tremendous liquid wealth, one or more of the small Gulf states might adopt economic and political policies in the region and beyond that differ, and perhaps even collide, with those of Saudi Arabia.

In this scenario, the Arabian Peninsula could end up with conflicting constituents. Aspirations towards greater integration would then disappear, and the region might become mired in muted conflicts.

These two scenarios will determine the Arabian Peninsula’s relationship with its three key neighbours: Egypt, Iraq, and Iran. A closely cooperating and gradually integrating Arabian Peninsula, whether under the umbrella of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) or through a development of it, would exert significant force on Iraq and Egypt, two countries that have major potential but also restricting factors that relate to internal politics in the case of Iraq and socio-economic challenges in the case of Egypt.

A cooperating and gradually integrating peninsula would also both limit Iranian aspirations for regional influence in the Gulf and the Levant, as well as subtly empower the liberal factions in Iran that prioritise economic over geo-political objectives.

A peninsula mired in conflicts could give rise to exactly the opposite outcomes. Iraq would look elsewhere for anchors for its divided identities, and Egypt would be drawn to European, rather than Arab, frameworks of cooperation and development.

However, the most consequential different outcome would be in the relationship with Iran. Some of the constituents of a divided peninsula, including influential and sizeable demographic segments particularly in some of the small Gulf states, would look to Iran as a counterweight to a rising and assertive Saudi Arabia in this scenario. Divisions that would appear in the peninsula’s societies and politics would stir up Iran’s historical aspiration for expansion eastwards. Within Iran itself, nationalistic instincts would trump progressive liberal currents.

Dynamics in the peninsula’s neighbourhood will affect its countries’ global positioning. An increasingly integrated peninsula with strong socio-economic links to Egypt and Iraq and that triggers the best outcome in Iran would quickly become a serious medium-sized power on the international scene. The quest of the countries of the Arabian Peninsula for strategic autonomy (presented in the second article in this series) would have a much higher chance of realisation.

On the other hand, a peninsula mired in conflicts and deprived of strategic depth in the Levant and North Africa could well find itself compelled to return to old types of relationships with the superpowers, offering whatever economic incentives the peninsula states have in return for protection and security. In a world where there are two assertive, forward-leaning superpowers – the US and China – such a dynamic would prove much more difficult to sustain than it was in the period from the 1950s to the second decade of the 21st century when the US was the primary superpower with important interests and an unrivalled presence in the peninsula.

Integration or division in the peninsula will also depend on the evolutionary trajectory of its societies and politics. In addition to historical and cultural links, a key reason why the peninsula states have felt a strong affinity for each other since the beginning of their modern age in the early to mid-20th century was the fact that their ruling structures and prevailing political and economic systems shared many key characteristics.

As discussed in the last article in this series, several domestic factors in some of the peninsula’s countries are leading towards more popular representation and serious checks and balances on decision-making. Such developments, if they are allowed to progress, would entail certain challenges.

Some countries will be faster on this development path than others. Some leaders and elites might attempt to stall such growth, while others might try to crush its drivers and the aspirations behind it altogether. The more the peninsula’s paths diverge, the less will be the desire of influential groups within these countries to come closer together and the less realistic will be any integration measures.

International stakeholders, particularly in Europe and the West in general, observe several parts of the Arab world today with trepidation, often fearing potential economic implosions and resulting waves of emigration. Often they are concerned about violence that they sense is linked to inherent factors. Distant observers, particularly in Asia, see in most of the Arab world a region that was at least on a par with their level of development some decades ago, but has now descended into shocking levels of disorder.

For external observers, the states of the Arabian Peninsula are the exception in the Arab world. They have managed to generate serious potential out of the riches they have come to control. Most of them have put their societies on promising trajectories.

But the factors that this series has presented – the changing dynamics of the peninsula states’ political economy, their quest for strategic autonomy, and the key social and identity and political vulnerabilities that they have – are bringing about a major transformation in the region.

If this transformation leads to a stable, more prosperous, and more progressive peninsula, there will be positive impacts on the entire Arab world and its neighbours. But if it turns the peninsula into a theatre of conflicting ideologies and sociopolitical frames of reference, and of clashes between the international powers, the entire Arab world and its neighbours will experience seismic shocks.

The writer is the author of Islamism: A History of Political Islam (2017) and Egypt on the Brink (2010).

* A version of this article appears in print in the 22 June, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

Short link: